Liverpool's radical anti--slavery poet

Ian McKeane reviews Forgotten Hero: the Life and Times of Edward Rushton by Bill Hunter, Living History Library, £5.99 pbk (ISBN 0-9542077-0-X)

THE POET and radical Edward Rushton has a unique place in the history of the city of Liverpool. He was born in 1756 and sent to sea at the age of 11. While on an American slaver at the age of 18 he was revolted by the treatment of the slaves. He contracted malignant opthalmia while ministering to the human cargo.

Blinded, he returned to Liverpool and lived on a small allowance from his father. He paid a boy to read widely to him and developed progressive political ideas. His first publication was The Dismembered Empire in 1782 and he remained fascinated by the American republic.

He became involved with the anti-slavery campaign in Liverpool in the 1780s and, in 1787, published anti-slavery poems The West-Indian Ecologues. He was instrumental in establishing the Liverpool Institution for the Blind which opened in 1791.

In the later 1790s he supported and publicised radical movements from Poland and Ireland to Haiti. Rushton died in 1814.

The book has several faults. Hunter portrays Rushton as a working-class hero although he was clearly not a member of Liverpool’s working poor. It also ignores the crucial struggle between the Anglican pro-slavers and the Non-conformist anti-slavers in Liverpool civic society.

Some of the latter are dismissed apparently because they were rich, thus betraying a profound misunderstanding of the social and economic structures in pre-industrial Liverpool.

Yet, this is a well-footnoted little book which is most successful when quoting and contextualising Rushton’s poems. By recording Edward Rushton’s humanity Bill Hunter has done his memory a service.

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